Caring for a parent despite the past

I received a phone call the other day, during which the caller posed this question to me: “Rabbi Saulson,” she asked, “Am I obligated to care for my aging father—a man who behaved viciously to my mother, my siblings and me throughout our lives?”

I hold no judgment for her asking, because surely there is a back story that would lead a grown woman, herself now a mother I happened to know, to ask me a question like that. What she was seeking was a “yes” or a “no” answer from me, hoping to move forward with either resolution or absolution regarding the continuing care of her sick and aging father.

Or so it sounded.

In reality, my job as an eldercare family mediator has allowed me this insight: The natural cycle of life—a parent aging and becoming increasingly more dependent on a grown child—brings complex emotions to the surface, and not just for the child-turned-caregiver. It’s not easy for the parents—who had always been the caretakers–to tender their role to their children, capable though they may be.  In those cases where the familial relationships have been troubled or strained, these already “normal” feelings of uncertainty may become that much more confusing, especially to the grown child who’d managed to cope with the past by locking it away. A sudden need to care-take for that parent who has caused emotional or physical harm in the past can pop the cork on those feelings of grief that had been so long bottled inside.

My job is to objectively care for the family of the aging parent as a whole. No two families will take the same paths. It’s vital that I “meet” the main family members involved in the situation, at least in some manner. Thanks to today’s technology, I’ve conducted many face-to-face counseling sessions via Skype, for clients who live across the country. There’s also still good old conference calling, which helps me hear a person’s inflections and better understand their feelings and intentions, and which can be done as a group session.

Realizing that my caller was brewing with decades of emotions,  I wanted to make certain that she, too, would get the help she needed, and especially that I helped her and her siblings work their way to a care-giving solution for Dad that they all could live with. And while it is true that I would generally tell someone that they are not obligated to care for a parent who engaged in molestation and other atrocities that I can’t bear to write, again, there is just no “one call, that’s all” answer in my kind of service.

I’ve been in contact with the caller and her siblings several times since that day, and we are together working toward a way that she may still contribute to the care-taking, but in a way that will work for her—without crossing the boundaries we have outlined.

I urge anyone else in this sandwich generation to create an action plan for Mom and Dad now. Don’t wait until the situation becomes urgent and feelings are heightened. Talk to family members about the roles they will play, and be certain to include your parents in on the discussion. As always, I am easily reachable and happy to help you navigate the waters. Please contact me any time.

All my best,

~ Rabbi Scott Saulson, Ph.D. 

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